The effects of the 9/11 attacks live on today from the formation of the surveillance state to the rise of Islamic State, and how Obama’s successors deal with the legacy of September 11 will define this century.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a turning point in world history. That day, everything changed. The consequences of the events of 9/11, as the day has come to be known since, still continue to unravel.
Like it or not, we live in the era of the American Empire. Sure, the United States does not have large swathes of territory under its direct control like the empires of the British, the French and the Spanish, but its writ runs large and its might is unchallenged.
Despite large budget and trade deficits, the dollar continues to be the reserve currency of the world. This means that dollars make the global economy go around. No one can do without the dollar whether it is Vladimir Putin’s troublemaking Russia or Angela Merkel’s export champion Germany. Therefore, the US can get debt for cheap, pushing down the cost of capital for its companies and entrepreneurs. It means the US Treasury can issue bonds for laughably low interest. This, in turn, allows the Americans to pay less for their mortgages and consume more merrily.
While emerging economies are on the rise, the US still remains an economic powerhouse that is home to companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and SpaceX. Manufacturing is still strong and shows new promise because of new materials, 3D printing and more. It is still relatively easy to start businesses in the US. Universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford are closely intertwined with both government and industry, throwing up the exciting new technologies of tomorrow. The US economy still comprises a quarter of the total global GDP, or gross domestic product.
The US military is nonpareil. It can project power anywhere, including the doorstep of China. American ships patrols sea lanes, its jets dominate in the air, and its drones can strike anyone anywhere in the world. Its bases dot the planet. Americans dominate space and outer space too. Uncle Sam can count on many allies, and some like the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea are fond of its tight embrace. Even recalcitrant allies depend greatly on the US and its military-industrial complex stands unrivaled.
More importantly, the US has what Joseph Nye calls “soft power” or what Antonio Gramsci more eloquently termed “cultural hegemony.” Other nations may carp and complain about America, but they live in a world where this grand and glorious country is primus inter pares. It is Uncle Sam that created the United Nations (UN), which is headquartered in New York. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are a stone’s throw away from the White House. The rules the rest of the world has to play by—whether they pertain to trade or nuclear nonproliferation—have largely been written by the US.
Tellingly, both Chinese communist bosses and Indian political leaders pack off their children to American universities where some lucky ones study under Nye. Latin America’s biggest trading partner might now be China but, like the Chinese and the Indians, Latin elites pack their children off to study in the US.
They also tend to buy property, spend vacations and have relatives in Uncle Sam’s land. The US president is still supposedly the leader of the free world and almost every other leader defers to him.
Even the denizens of the Arab world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where resentment toward Amreeka simmers and not infrequently erupts explosively, are obsessed with the superpower. The conspiracy theories that abound in these places outdo the imagination of superlative thriller writers. Needless to say, many of the best minds in this region make a beeline for the top US schools despite their reservations.
The world still embraces the US model, lock, stock and two smoking barrels. Hollywood is the global theater of dreams despite all the singing and dancing of the midget Khans of Bollywood. American superheroes routinely save the world just as Jesus once did for a church that is still based in Rome. American slang fills the vocabulary of teenagers from Shanghai and Mumbai to Nairobi and Sao Paolo. The British who gave the Americans their common law system, language and measurements have long accepted the role ancient Greeks adopted in rambunctious Rome. Even the French, for all their Gallic Vercingetorix-style pride, grudgingly march to the tune of their more virile sans-culotte cousins.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the finest hour of the American Empire. Soon, the Soviet Empire collapsed and the Soviet Union itself crumbled. George H.W. Bush led a popular coalition into the First Gulf War when he liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Economically, politically, culturally and ideologically, the US was on the ascendant. American ideologues saw this as a vindication of their system, warts and all. It was during this period that Francis Fukuyama talked about the end of history. Now, the world would march in step toward American-style democracy and presumably sing Kumbaya.
The attacks of 9/11 destroyed much more than the Twin Towers. They blew up the idea that history had ended. They dramatically dented American self-belief and swagger. Random terrorists achieved what the Japanese and the Germans had failed to in World War II. They managed to strike New York and Washington, DC, the heart of this great nation of Manifest Destiny. Suddenly, the world was not such a kinder and gentler place as Bush Sr. had promised, but a dark and dangerous environment where perils lurked in the shadows and no place was safe anymore.
After the attacks, the US wanted revenge. Therefore, the country invaded Afghanistan where the Taliban had acted as hosts to al-Qaeda. Most of the world applauded as the US unleashed the full fury of its wrath on the Taliban and turned the screws on their backers, Pakistan.
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None cheered harder than India. For long, the country had been at the receiving end of mujahedeen who reviled the idol-worshipping kuffar. In the run up to 9/11, the Taliban had destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas and had granted shelter to a plane hijacked by extreme Islamists in Kandahar, Afghanistan. With characteristic pusillanimity, the Indian government had acquiesced to the hijackers’ demands, handing the Taliban a big victory and filling their sails with wind. As Big Brother Uncle Sam stepped into the picture, weak-kneed India and much of the world felt safer.
If George W. Bush, or rather Bush Jr., would have focused on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the history of the world might have been different today. What his administration did thereafter was not only monumentally stupid, but also heartbreakingly tragic. Worthies like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz acted as cheerleaders with hairy legs for a full-scale invasion of Iraq. In an administration staffed by Christian evangelists and neo-conservatives, machismo and ideology replaced thinking and understanding. The decider-in-chief was urged to act speedily.
The arguments for the invasion of Iraq were all over the map. Some argued that Iraq had broken international law and, as an avenging sheriff, the US had to ride out to mete justice to an incorrigible rogue regime. Others believed that Saddam Hussein, the bloodthirsty dictator of Iraq, was building weapons of mass destruction and a preemptive strike would kill the baby in the crib. This would rid the world of another 9/11 possibility, making it a safer place.
The most naive who had read little history and had even less understanding of cultures outside North America and Europe were adamant that the invasion would ring in democracy in the Middle East. Many of these champions of democracy from places like Harvard and Oxford believed that the US would be able to establish democracy in Iraq in much the same manner as it had in Germany and Japan after World War II. The fact that some of Uncle Sam’s closest allies were Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and military-ruled Pakistan was conveniently ignored in a staggering act of cognitive dissonance. These were mere details for woolly headed intellectuals or bleeding heart liberals.
The Iraq War chipped away at the cultural hegemony of the US for three reasons.
First, the non-white world did not buy the US justification for the war. Those who conducted the 9/11 attacks were neither from Iraq, nor were they supported by the Saddam regime. Therefore, invading Iraq made little sense, especially when the war against the Taliban had yet to be won. Most former colonies saw Uncle Sam acting as an imperial power of yore to rob Iraq of its oil. Even many European powers such as France and Germany were distinctly uneasy about the war and publicly opposed it.
Second, the US undermined the UN to invade Iraq. Ironically, the US created the United Nations to uphold a rules-based system. Now, it was signaling to the world that it would not play by its own rules. John Bolton, an incongruously pugnacious ambassador to the UN, did not win Uncle Sam many friends and gave the impression that Bush Jr. wanted to run the world like his Texan ranch.
Third, American credibility took a beating in the Middle East. For long, US interference in the region from the 1953 coup in Iran to its strong alliance with Israel made people suspect, fear and blame the superpower for the Arab world’s woes. Its wanton holier-than-thou invasion of Iraq filled people with contempt. Many may not have liked the cruel Iraqi dictator, but they did not want to be colonized again.
The Iraq War also led to a strategic and not just cultural challenge to US hegemony. Effete Europeans just wrung their hands in exasperation as their corn-fed relative acted boorishly. On the other hand, the Chinese were filled with consternation as US troops cruised effortlessly into Baghdad. Now, modernization of its sprawling People Liberation Army (PLA) had to proceed posthaste so that the Middle Kingdom was not caught napping again as in the Opium Wars of the 19th century.
The invasion of Iraq may have filled the Chinese with dread, but it has turned out to be quicksand for America. Uncle Sam still remains mired in the Middle East. Even neo-conservative fanatics like Paul Wolfowitz have admitted that the US bungled in Iraq. Truth be told, it blundered not bungled and did so big time. Dismantling all systems of governance in the fanatical pursuit of de-Baathification brought chaos to Iraq. While hyped-up Harvard Law School bigwigs who specialize in Jewish and Israeli law were cooking up Iraq’s delectable new constitution, the country hurtled into civil war and ethnic cleansing, paving the path for the rise of the Islamic State.
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In the meantime, 4,500 American soldiers have died, 30,000 more have suffered injury, even higher numbers have some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and US taxpayers have shelled out well over $1 trillion even by conservative estimates. The US military is running ragged with far too many tours of duty taking their toll on its personnel. Hence, the world’s fabled fighting machine is “under strain and at risk.” An emboldened China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and even elsewhere. Matt Schiavenza of The Atlantic argues that China emerged as the biggest winner of the Iraq War. He is not exactly right but there is an element of truth to his argument.
China has certainly become more powerful but it is starting from a very low base. Besides, the incredibly insular Middle Kingdom has a long way to go. It has hundreds of millions of poor peasants to take care of, a dramatically aging society because of its one-child policy, and entanglements in its near neighborhood that leave little time and energy to challenge Uncle Sam globally. More importantly, Chinese is not a world language and the Middle Kingdom offers no new paradigms for the world—economic or technological, philosophical or spiritual. There is no Baghdad-style House of Wisdom in the offing in the land of Confucius that is fast being seduced by Christianity and Christian Dior.
The domestic implications of the Iraq War for the US are more important. Unlike Vietnam, this war has been invisible to most of American society apart from images on television, headlines in newspapers and flashy Hollywood films. There is no conscription or draft, as the Americanos say, to bring home the reality of war to bright young things thronging expensive and not-so-expensive American universities. So, this war has not led to introspection or debate as during the Vietnam War.
Moreover, in the age of Facebook, even iconic photos of the Vietnam War are censored. This means that most Americans are uninformed about foreign wars that never show up in their news feeds. Naturally, returning soldiers feel isolated in an apathetic society. For all the lip service Americans pay their military, it is the poor who end up serving the country. In a transactional society that worships Mammon, no one gives a damn for their service. This worsens the PTSD that is rampant in the US military.
After the 9/11 attacks, the US became a country afraid of its own shadow. This enabled the formation of a surveillance state that monitors its citizens minutely. Edward Snowden has put this issue on the public agenda, but people are too busy on Twitter or Snapchat to care. Meanwhile, 9/11 has made the militarization of police in the US exponential. In an earlier edition of The World This Week, this author pointed out that worthies in Washington, DC disbursed $35 billion to state and local forces between 2002 and 2011. As a result, the police are more violent, pay less heed to people’s safety and ignore their civil rights. In the new zeitgeist, they conveniently avoid public scrutiny or public accountability.
The overreaction by the US in its foreign policy post-9/11 has been reversed under President Barack Obama. While he has continued with drone strikes and eliminated Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, the Obama doctrine has been characterized by an Asia pivot. The president who grew up in Indonesia has worked hard to shift America’s focus to Asia even as he tries to extricate the US from the Middle East. Therefore, Obama has been reticent to intervene in Syria even when the Bashar al-Assad government crossed his “red line” of using chemical weapons. He has not been too keen to jump into Libya or send ground troops back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State. This is a stark contrast to the trigger-happy days of George W. Bush.
Apart from pivoting to Asia and steering clear of more engagements in the Middle East, the Obama administration has been busy settling old feuds and crafting new alliances. Historic rapprochement with Cuba and Iran has been accompanied by forging closer ties with Vietnam and India.
As a modern-day Marcus Aurelius, Obama has contained some of the damage of 9/11. More importantly, he has ensured that Pax Americana lives on for now. It is up to his successors to figure out how to deal with the continuing legacy of 9/11. Their wisdom or folly will define the fate of this century.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Ken Graff